Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett; drawing by David Levine

In the early Fifties, when I first read Dashiell Hammett, he seemed to fit perfectly an image my friends and I had then of a writer who had made being a writer into a romantic occupation. He had lived in “the real world,” he had suffered years of obscurity and poverty as he learned to write a clean, honest prose, he had written books that were out of print and hard to find, he had gone to Hollywood and drunk too much and stopped writing, he had chosen to go to jail rather than talk at a communist conspiracy trial, he had some undetailed beautiful relation with Lillian Hellman. Compared to that, Fitzgerald and Hemingway were too gaudy, available for anyone’s romancing.

About Hammett’s writing, I now see, we held an ambivalent attitude that bespoke an uneasiness we could not recognize. On the one hand we pointed to the battered paperbacks we had struggled to find and said: “There, with Op and Spade and Nick Charles, is the real thing, serious writing about crime and detection.” On the other hand we implicitly diminished that achievement by dreaming that in the intervening years Hammett had been struggling to write a great, a “mature” novel that would show the world he was as good as we wanted to claim he was. When pressed, I would admit to preferring Raymond Chandler, even to hankering after new young toughs like John D. MacDonald and John Ross Macdonald. But Hammett was the first, and the years of writing stories for Black Mask had to be honored somehow. Our conversations would dwindle into asking which was Hammett’s best book, and, since claims could be made for many of them, it was easier to talk that way than to ask if any was very good.

By 1961, when Hammett died, it no longer seemed as important to sustain romantic images of writers, though the battered paperbacks had been carefully packed away with each move, and one could hardly fail to be moved by Hellman’s eulogy: “He believed in the salvation of intelligence, and he tried to live it out…and never, in all the years, did he play anybody’s game but his own. He never lied, he never faked, he never stooped.” And her 1965 memoir, which may well be the best thing either of them ever wrote, did much to make Hammett into the heroic figure we had all vaguely created years earlier; it was then published as the introduction to ten Continental Op pieces called The Big Knockover, and that volume, plus The Novels of Dashiell Hammett, which had been published a year earlier, gave his best work the permanence it deserved.

Both collections were well received, but not given the rather lavish attention that has recently been paid to The Continental Op, a new book of seven stories selected and introduced by Steven Marcus. I note, for instance, that local libraries that don’t have one or both of the earlier hardcover collections have been quick to acquire this one. And Marcus’s introduction takes a much loftier tone than any other I’ve heard in discussions of Hammett. It’s all a shame. The stories are inferior work—Marcus might well have done better by rescuing the few minor tales that have never been reprinted from Black Mask—and those who come to Hammett for the first time via this volume will get only snatches that show why anyone should read him. With a writer who is very limited at his best, this kind of exposure is especially unwelcome.

Yet one can see what Marcus has in mind, perverse though it seems to be. He wants to take those stories which have almost no interest either as conventional fiction or as conventional detective fiction and to claim that this is where you find Hammett pure. The Op, he says, “undertakes to deconstruct, decompose, and thus demystify the fictional—and therefore false—reality created by the characters, crooks or not, with whom he is involved.” True enough, though that is a fancy way to say something pretty obvious. Then:

It should be quite evident that there is a reflective and coordinate relation between the activities of the Op and the activities of Hammett, the writer. Yet the depth and problematic character of this self-reflexive process begin to be revealed when we observe that the reconstruction or true fiction created and arrived at by the Op at the end of the story is no more plausible—nor is it meant to be—than the stories that have been told to him by all parties, guilty or innocent, in the course of his work. The Op may catch the real thief or collar the actual crook—that is not entirely to the point. What is to the point is that the story, account, or chain of events that the Op winds up with as “reality” is no more plausible and no less ambiguous than the stories that he meets with at the outset and later.

Thus Hammett becomes a candidate for existential sainthood. What makes Marcus’s point useless is that in so far as it is true it is mostly a sign of the mediocrity of the stories. We assume, and the Op assumes, that in each case his job is like that of the classic detective: winnow true from false, fact from fiction. We do not assume that a nameless and faceless figure, operating out of a named but equally faceless San Francisco, will act like Philo Vance or Ellery Queen. Nor does Hammett offer his characters in such a way that anyone can care who did what to whom. But if the Op’s account of events isn’t plausible, it’s meant to be, even if it isn’t tidy or illuminating. If it isn’t to the point that he catch the real thief, then his whole demeanor as an operative—who seeks no reward for himself, who is never violent wantonly—is a fraud. When it doesn’t matter what the Op or anyone else does, and that is certainly true in many pages here if not true of whole stories, it makes for very dull reading.


Take “The Main Death,” for example, Hammett’s forty-fourth published story, so he was no beginner. The Op is asked by a collector named Gungen to find out who killed his employee, Jeffrey Main, and to recover the $20,000 that was stolen from him and that belongs to Gungen. Mrs. Main’s story is that she was awakened by a scuffle, found her husband fighting two masked figures, one of whom shot Main. His empty wallet and a woman’s handkerchief are found on the roof of a nearby apartment. The Op sees Gungen and discovers the handkerchief is owned by his wife. As he leaves he spots a woman leaving too, and he has her tailed to the apartment of two local con men, Coughing Ben Weel and Bunky Dahl. From Mrs. Gungen Op learns that Main had been her lover and that on the afternoon he died they had been together and he had been robbed by two men who fit Weel’s and Dahl’s description. Op finds them, shakes them down for the twenty grand, masking himself as a thief and not as a cop so he can then let them go and keep them from implicating Mrs. Gungen in her affair with Main. All this means that Mrs. Main’s original story was a lie, so Op confronts her and learns Main had committed suicide and Mrs. Main had covered up to gain his insurance.

It just isn’t true to say of a story like this, as Marcus does:

What Hammett has done—unlike most writers of detective or crime stories before him or since—is to include as part of the contingent and dramatic consciousness of his narrative the circumstance that the work of the detective is itself a fiction-making activity, a discovery or creation by fabrication of something new in the world, or hidden, latent, potential, or as yet undeveloped within it.

The Op uncovers the fabrications woven by Main, Mrs. Main, and Mrs. Gungen; he himself does not fabricate, nor is his consciousness contingent or dramatic except as the uncoverer of “real ” truths. He does not, to be sure, chortle or offer lengthy accounts of his methods of deduction, or act as though the world after the uncovering is significantly different from the way it was in the beginning. If his account of Main’s death isn’t plausible, at least fits all available facts, as in any detective fiction. The Op is like the queen in chess, able to move both straight and diagonally, as it were, in a world of pawns, bishops, and rooks. But he is a piece, more truly within his world than are most detectives.

This is precisely what’s wrong. When the cast is cardboard, when the relations among the characters are devoid of interest, when the Op succeeds by allowing for no human motive except the most simply conceived greed and lust, when the plot moves these figures around like wind-up dolls, there is nothing to make any of it matter. No theory, furthermore, true or false, that Marcus can supply can create an interest by saying “But that’s the point” and by going on about contingencies and fiction-making detectives. Hammett was not a hero to himself, but he took himself seriously, and Marcus’s way of making him pretentious only has the effect of making him trivial.


Perhaps most of Hammett’s admirers would not, however, take a line like Marcus’s; when he is praised, it is almost always for his writing. In these stories it is mostly drearily literary. The most frequent event here, outside of conversation, is gunfighting, and Hammett could never do anything with guns except pile up elegant variations: “From behind the roadster, a pistol snapped at me, three times”; “An orange streak from the car ahead cut off my wonderment”; “A flash from somewhere near the roadster’s heels”; “The girl’s pistol barked at the empty touring car”; “Darkness—streaked with orange and blue—filled with noise”; “A gun thundered”; “Gunpowder burned at my face”; “Two points of light near the floor gave out fire and thunder”; “Twin flames struck at me again.” Get the Op in a room with a couple of toughs, put him in a car chasing another, and these stiff, self-conscious phrases pile up ludicrously.

Or take a single passage:

The Kid jumped close.

He knew knives. None of your clumsy downward strokes with the blade sticking out the bottom of his fist.

Thumb and crooked forefinger guided blade. He struck upward. Under Billie’s shoulder. Once. Deep.

Billie pitched forward, smashing the woman to the floor under him. He rolled off her and was dead on his back among the furniture stuffing. Dead, he seemed larger than ever, seemed to fill the room.

The Whosis Kid wiped his knife clean on a piece of carpet, snapped it shut, and dropped it back in his pocket. He did this with his left hand. His right was close to his hip. He did not look at the knife. His eyes were on Maurois.

Perelman, or just ripe for Perelman? In “The Simple Art of Murder,” Raymond Chandler says, “Hammett’s style at its worst was almost as formalized as a page of Marius the Epicurean,” and every story in The Continental Op shows it: “He looked dead, and he had enough bullet holes in him to make death a good guess”; “Even if I hadn’t known Ringgo was looking at me I could have felt his eyes on me.”

Nor is it hard to say how such bad writing came to be. Among Black Mask readers Hammett was very popular, and he thus learned what made stories sell and kept putting the Op through his predictable paces. He was pretty thoroughly committed, from habit or design, to the idea that human beings were not very interesting, so no character he could invent could hold his interest. Now and again he came up with a good plot which could give his writing some purpose, but since he had to keep writing, good plot or no, there was little for him to attend to most of the time but the prose itself. When that happens, the prose becomes stylized almost immediately, words are pieces in a jigsaw.

Hammett himself must have realized some of this by the late Twenties, after he had been writing for seven or eight years. He began to write what the pulps liked to call novelettes; two put together became Blood Money, groups of four became Red Harvest and The Dain Curse. It is still the Op, still cross, double-cross, and triple-cross, but Hammett begins to blow up his writing, to crack wise, to be self-confessedly ornate—not all at once, but you don’t find sentences like “The room was black as an honest politician’s prospects” or “It was an even mile in the darkness to the head of the stairs we had come up” very often in the stories in the Marcus collection. As can be seen, most such sentences aren’t much good, but they allow the Op and Hammett to have a sense of style, rather than force them, as the earlier stories tend to do, into self-defeating stylization. Of course this sense of self as style is not at all what Marcus wants to praise Hammett for, but it was not only what could keep Hammett interested—he stopped writing stories for Black Mask in 1930—but what allowed him to do his best work.

To do that he needed someone besides the Op, whose anonymous integrity had worn pretty thin, and he assayed three different characters with three different styles in his last three novels: Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key, and Nick Charles in The Thin Man. It is at this point that we can turn to the otherwise deflecting question of which is the best book.

Hammett himself preferred The Glass Key, and so, to judge by what he later did with the private eye form, did Chandler; there is much to be said for the preference. The Maltese Falcon isn’t all that much different from the Op novels, and if Spade is a clearer figure it is mostly because he is more openly selfish and nasty, and there isn’t much Hammett can do except let him bark away. The Thin Man is silly fun, warmed by the relation of Nick to Nora, warmed as Hammett himself was by his new relation with Lillian Hellman, but otherwise an inconsequential effort to make a casual virtue out of casual plotting. Yet The Glass Key is the best because Hammett here tries to make the style of his hero matter; Ned Beaumont’s poses are poses, capable of costing something. It is a fumbling book because Hammett wouldn’t commit himself enough to what he was doing, wouldn’t try to assess how much Beaumont dummies up because of his feeling for a friend, or how much it matters to him that he seem more a gentleman than a thug.

The code always said that one doesn’t talk about such things, and the success or failure of The Glass Key—and all Hammett, all Chandler, all Ross Macdonald, too—depends on how well the hero’s relation to this code is handled. Hold to it completely, act as if there were no prices for so doing, and you have the boring Op; begin to act as if there were prices to be paid and inevitably self-pity begins to creep in: I kept my word, and I took my beating, etc. can lead to some dreary and immoral posing. What Hellman has shown us, however, is that Hammett himself believed in the code, and suffered because he did; the dignity with which he was willing to do so tinged his life with greatness. Better, then, to let the self-pity come in if it must, better to deal with it openly as best one can. Better to say life matters, especially if you really think it does.

Hammett cannot handle all this in The Glass Key, but he tries. Beaumont can cry, and attempt suicide after his beating, he can lash out at others because he is unhappy with himself, he can stand paralyzed at the end after he tells his friend Madvig he is going away with the woman Madvig loves and Beaumont does not. The writing in this book is on the edge of all Hammett himself could not write about, but that is not a bad place for his writing to be.

Given this, if Marcus wanted to reprint some currently unavailable Hammett stories he would have been better off, I think, calling his collection “The Early Dashiell Hammett” or some such title. That would give the Op the historical importance he had for Hammett, Black Mask, and the hard-boiled story in general. After all, being a Pinkerton agent had given Hammett some material and a way to look at life, but neither plots nor style. The plots he borrowed—not literally, but in the sense that he wasn’t going to try to do without them or invent a new kind—and the style had to be invented and evolved even as he had to keep churning out stories in order to live. No need to complain that these stories are crude, primitive, effortful; no need, either, to elevate these very qualities into high art. He did quite a bit in his ten years of writing, and he was a real pioneer. If the best of Chandler and MacDonald and Macdonald is better than his best, if the middling stuff of quite a few writers is better than his middling stuff, there isn’t one who doesn’t know how much he made them possible.

This Issue

February 6, 1975